This past weekend, I finished reading My Brother’s Name is Jessica, the latest release from Irish author John Boyne. I picked it up a few weeks back while browsing in a book shop because the cover caught my eye, it seemed like an interesting and topical story and I remembered seeing that it was controversially trending on Twitter for some reason. But I hadn’t clicked into anything, and didn’t really know what that was all about.
So I bought the book, and decided to forgo looking into the scandal before reading it, so as to make up my own mind about the story before seeing why it riled people. Upon finishing it, I have to be honest and say that I’m not completely sure how I feel about it.
For anyone reading this who hasn’t read the book yet or heard anything about it, My Brother’s Name is Jessica is told from the point of view of Sam, a 13-year-old boy who idolises his big brother Jason. When Jason reveals that she is actually Jessica, knowing she has been born into the wrong body since childhood, it sends shockwaves through the Waver family.
Mr and Mrs. Waver – high profile government officials – immediately dismiss Jessica, believing it to be a phase she will grow out of, and are desperate to keep it from going any further in case the press get wind of the story, and potentially damage Mrs. Waver’s upcoming bid for the job of UK Prime Minister. On the other hand, Sam is bullied daily by his classmates about the whole situation while dealing with his own confusion about what Jessica is going through, which makes him somewhat resentful of the person he once idolised.
A large part of the criticism that has landed at Boyne’s door has to do with many in the transgender community feeling the narrative stereotypes transgender people, and some have even gone as far as to say that it contains transphobic material from somebody who doesn’t have a full perspective of what living life as trans is really like. For his part, Boyne has hit back at critics of his work, feeling that he has been targeted for daring to write about an unlived experience. In the linked article he is quoted as saying: “I’ve always said the worst advice you can give to young writers is write about what you know. Write about what you don’t know. If we only write about what we know, it’s all biography.” It’s a sentiment echoed in the afterword of My Brother’s Name is Jessica.
On that score, I can agree with him. Authors shouldn’t shy away from a subject just because they haven’t lived it…if they did, many over the years wouldn’t have been able to write what they did, and we would have lost out on some great stories. I take the same view here as I did to the news that Taron Egerton’s casting as Elton John in Rocketman had received backlash from the LGBT community because Egerton is straight.
While I can understand the frustration of a community that is often underrepresented in film, casting of a role should be made on who is best for the part, and should have nothing to do with sexuality (and I do acknowledge that that has happened to the detriment of gay actors in the past, but I also do think times are thankfully changing regarding this). Even if you ignore the fact that John, who we obviously know is an openly gay man, personally requested that Egerton play him in the biopic, the Welsh actor heavily researched the character, and it’s clear from his performance that he relished playing every part of Elton’s life and was always the right choice.
My point being that, if you are going to write a story about something that you are unfamiliar with on a personal level, by all means write the story. But make sure that you research the hell out of it in order to get as wide a perspective as possible, and make sure you are prepared to take the inevitable criticism that will come, because not everybody is going to like or agree with your finished product.
Boyne speaks in the afterword of his book about meeting with several members of the transgender community for research purposes before writing it. I think we have no reason to doubt him on this. But I do wonder if his plan to structure his transgender story from the point of view of a child on the outside looking in was a wise one that people in the transgender community would really get behind?
While I did find My Brother’s Name is Jessica well written in parts, I personally thought writing it from Sam’s point of view was not the best approach he could have took. I say that as somebody who is not transgender and while I have empathy for those who are, I admittedly do not have a whole lot of knowledge or insight in this area, so that is just an opinion having read this book.
I do know what Boyne was going for in trying to capture the confusion the friends and family members of a transgender person often feel when that person reveals they are transgender. But, why not use the opportunity to tell the story from the point of view of Jessica instead, and use those research meetings with transgender people to really show how people living this life cope and feel while living it? For me, reading it the way it was written kind of places Jason/Jessica as the antagonist of the story, who is the result of their parents ridicule in the press and their younger brother’s bullying. When in actual fact, Jessica is simply trying to be who she is, and any adverse effects of that shouldn’t be lumped on her shoulders.
That’s not to say I think that this book should have been all sunshine and rainbows, where nobody opposes Jessica in her transgender journey, because then it wouldn’t be realistic. Sadly, we don’t yet live in a world where that’s the case. But, I do think the book could have been structured better and written from Jessica’s point of view, rather than have it feel like she is the villain of the piece, destroying everybody else’s way of life.
The controversy surrounding this book doesn’t seem to be dying down, but I think it is spurring some important conversations, in spite of the inevitable mudslinging that often happens in the social media age. As a reader, I’m admittedly conflicted by this book, because I can see what the intention in writing it was, but can also see why there is criticism.
Overall, I think we should steer clear of telling people to “stay in their lane” when it comes to writing because it ultimately will hamper creativity. But I also think if we are to venture into personally uncharted territory in our writing, we should be prepared to do the utmost by way of research in order to handle the topic as sensitively as possible. And be prepared to face the criticism of those who think you haven’t achieved that!